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Texas Senate passes bill to cut early voting, empower poll watchers

The state's Legislature leads the nation with 49 restrictive voting bills introduced.

The Texas Senate in the early morning hours Thursday passed a sweeping election bill that cuts early voting options and empowers partisan poll watchers.

Senate Bill 7 bans overnight early voting and drive-thru early voting, popular options offered by Harris County, Texas, during the 2020 election.

Republican lawmakers championed the bill as a measure that would make Texas elections more secure, but advocates argued the state was trying to make voting harder, particularly for communities of color, disabled voters, and older voters.

The bill now heads to the Texas House of Representatives, which also considered its own omnibus package of restrictions, House Bill 6, on Thursday. The Texas Legislature leads the nation in restrictive voting bills, according to the Brennan Center for Justice; 49 bills have been introduced that would limit access to the ballot box.

The Senate bill requires counties with more than a million residents to allocate polling sites based on "eligible voters" in each state representative district. But it's unclear where local officials would obtain such a data point. The Census, for instance, doesn't measure the number of U.S. citizens of voting age who are not currently serving a felony sentence, including parole or probation. Advocates say it will effectively require election officials to rely on historical data that will put more polling places in white areas, at the expense of communities of color with lower voter registration and participation rates.

There are also new restrictions dictating how officials and individuals may help a voter, like requiring someone helping an individual vote to fill out a form explaining why they are helping.

"It makes it harder and scarier to vote or participate in the election process," Thomas Buser-Clancy, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

He particularly called out a provision that allows poll watchers to take video of election activity and send it to the Secretary of of State if they believe there is something unlawful occurring.

"If you wanted to establish a mechanism to allow watchers to intimidate and harass voters, this would be it," he said.

Poll watchers must swear they will not harass voters, but advocates nonetheless fear that the new law would give partisan poll watchers too much latitude.

The bill underwent hours of debate and “scores” of proposed amendments before passage, according to the bill’s author, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes.

“This bill is about making it easy to vote and hard to cheat,” he said in a social media video posted after 3 a.m. in Austin.

Advocates and Democrats have slammed the state Senate bill as unnecessary and a major threat to voting rights.

"This bill is so terrible, I would have thought it was an April fool's joke," tweeted Democrats' top election attorney, Marc Elias, on Thursday.

Joaquin Gonzalez, an attorney with Texas Civil Rights Project, said the bill "basically takes away options for voters."

In an interview with NBC News last month, Hughes said that the 2020 election increased interest in legislation that Texas lawmakers were already keen on passing.

"This was already in process, but then the 2020 election was so in the national spotlight, and so many people have questions, so many people have concerns," he told NBC News last week. "I would say that has raised the profile of the issue."

American Airlines released a statement on Thursday afternoon, opposing the Texas Senate bill. “We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it. As a Texas-based business, we must stand up for the rights of our team members and customers who call Texas home,” the airline said in a statement. The response comes on the heels of Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola coming out in opposition to Georgia’s recently passed voting law.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, released a statement on Thursday criticizing American Airlines for opposing the bill and accused the company of not reading the bill.

"Texans are fed up with corporations that don't share our values trying to dictate public policy," he said.

A statement from Dallas-based Southwest Airlines called the right to vote “foundational to our democracy and a right coveted by all."

"We believe every voter should have a fair opportunity to let their voice be heard," the statement continued. "This right is essential to our nation’s success."

Former President Donald Trump's stolen election lie has inspired an avalanche of election-related bills nationwide, as GOP lawmakers around the country seek to add restrictions to mail voting and other electoral practices that they say are needed to improve public confidence in the results. By all accounts, the 2020 election was secure and the results accurate. Trump's own attorney general, William Barr, said there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and the president's legal efforts to overturn the results failed in courtrooms around the country.